LMP2 – Formula ORECA
Oh dear. If the ACO’s idea of the new cost-capped P2 formula was to balance the field and increase competitiveness then this has backfired massively. At the test day, the ORECA/Alpine chassis filled the first thirteen places, leaving the Dallara/Ligier/Riley contingent in a variety of moods from head-scratching to outright anger. As these cars are homologated up to 2020, then there is no way that any change can be made to even up the field. Therefore, we can only look to ORECA to supply the P2 class winner (the largest with 25 cars), while the other teams can only do damage-limitation. The other big talking point is the immense straight line speed of the P2s compared to the P1-H, but the four-wheel drive of the top class meant that overall lap times were about ten seconds down.
As this is a pro-am category, then much will come down to driver ability and speed, rather than just machinery.
Signatech Alpine Matmut (#35)
Fastest in class at the test day was the #35 Alpine, Nelson Panciatici setting a time of 3:28.146 to put him 6th overall. This car has only been entered for this race, so a good result could see them extend the programme to further races. The drivers are a good blend of experience, Panciatici & Ragues, along with speed, this being provided by ex-GP2 man André Negrão, who is starting his first Le Mans.
Following close on the heels of the Alpine was the 24 Manor ORECA, this crew is looking very handy! The 24 has a strong line up with Tor Graves, Jonathan Hirschi and ex Toro Rosso star Jean-Eric Vergne at the helm. JEV has shown to have adapted well to closed-top cars, and with a year’s experience for the Graeme Lowdon-run team, don’t bet against a good result for this or the sister car.
DC Jackie Chan Racing (#37)
One of the pre-test favourites, they certainly didn’t disappoint with the third-fastest time in the class. Undoubted stand-out driver here is my hometown hero Alex Brundle, but Tristam Gommendy isn’t too bad either. David Cheng is the compulsory silver driver, who will provide crucial seat time. One of the cars certain to run at the front and a win is certainly possible.
G-Drive Racing (#26)
This car is run by TDS Racing but with sponsorship from Rusinov’s G-Drive concern. The driver line up is another with lots of experience, all three having driven in the WEC before. The big name in this squad is Williams F1 test driver and GP3 champion Alex Lynn. Pierre Thiriet is a fast silver, and Rusinov’s pace last year has been rewarded with gold status (although not initially to his liking!)
DC Jackie Chan Racing (#38)
Proving that the speed of the sister car was no fluke, the Mighty 38 was just two places further down the test day times. Now leading the WEC P2 standings, the driver line-up leaves very little to be desired, either in terms of experience or speed. Consistency is the key at Le Mans, and this squad has it in bundles with Olly Jarvis impressing the most, as would be expected for an ex-Audi man! Renault F1 tester Ho Ping Tun provides the € and Frenchman Thomas Laurent is the silver driver. One of the clear favourites for the win, possibly battling the sister car as much as they are allowed to do.
Vaillante Rebellion (#13)
The Bart Hayen-run team are back in P2 with sponsorship from comic book hero Michel Vaillant and a changed driver line-up from last year. The #13 car finished sixth overall, Nelson Piquet Jr leading the way, with Swiss Mathias Beche re-joining the team after a year away at TDS. Dane Heinemaier-Hanson also returns to a P2 car after a year in GT. As ever, the presentation and turnout is excellent, so a good result should not be a surprise.
TDS Racing (#28)
The sister to the #26 but with different sponsorship, the car came in seventh place in the test. The team ran four drivers for the test, Volvo WTCC driver Nick Catsburg joining the regular line up of the now-healthy Mathieu Vaxvière, Manu Collard and François Perrodo, the latter making his first start at Le Mans in a prototype. This is another squad with very few weak points, Collard in particular bringing experience in bundles which is what this team needs to succeed.
Signatech Alpine Matmut (#36)
Last year’s P2 victors were only eighth in class in the test, but this should not distract from how good the team is, despite having to shuffle the pack due to regular driver Nico Lapierre’s commitment to Toyota. Replacing him is ex-Porsche 2016 champion Roman Dumas, making his second start with the team after Spa. Joining him is Briton Matt Rao, undertaking his sophomore season after an impressive debut last year with Manor. However, it’s Gustavo Menezes who really adds depth to the team. The one question mark is inter-team rivalry, especially if the #35 is ahead. It’s double points here don’t forget, and so far only the #36 is entered for the full season.
Graff Racing (#40)
The ninth-placed P2 belongs to the team making a welcome return to the WEC after a reboot in LMP3 last year. Another graduate of the Manor school of driving, Richard Bradley has been the most impressive of the trio, so his advice and support to his team-mates James Allen and Franck Matelli will be invaluable.
Vaillante Rebellion (#31)
The sister car to the #13, the tenth-placed car is handled by no less than Nico Prost and Bruno Senna! (Not forgetting Julien Canal). Much like their team-mates, a fast lap time was not really the goal for their test, as they know reliability will win out. Another potential winner!
Manor Racing (#25)
Another strong contender for victory is the second of the Manor cars. It was less than two seconds off the pace of its stable mate, indicating some good consistency across all three pilots, namely ex-F1 Renault and latterly SMP BR01 driver Vitaly Petrov, Ricardo Gonzalez who despite the end of his association with Morand has managed to find himself a drive with a top P2 team, and ex-ByKolles man Simon Trummer. This is one team who should feature strongly, despite the relative inexperience of Manor. But they are fast learners…
I’m sure I’m not alone if I say this is the most impressive debut team from last year’s ELMS rookie crop. The three drivers who Elton Julian has chosen have already repaid his faith with a win at Monza in May. Now leading the ELMS standings, the trio has an impressive record, Briton Ben Hanley comes from the lower single-seater formulae, the bronze Henrik Hedman drove in the Ferrari Challenge here last year, and the stand-in for regular driver Nico Lapierre (how does he manage to get replaced twice at the same race?), Felix Rosenqvist has already won the Macau F3 twice so he has no shortage of speed either. Don’t count these out!
G-Drive Racing (#22)
Not to be confused with the #26, this car is actually the sister car to the #21, but with G-Drive sponsorship. Lead driver Ryo Hirakawa is the official reserve for Toyota, having lost out to Yuji Kunimoto for the race seat, so he will be keen to prove he is still the faster. He is joined by two Mexicans who bring some extra pesos in sponsorship, Memo Rojas who partners him in the ELMS, and IMSA specialist José Gutierrez, making his début at la Sarthe this year. Nic Minassian tested as reserve driver as well.
United Autosports (#32)
14th in class and top non-ORECA, the #32 Ligier entry is just reward for Richard Dean’s team winning the 2016 ELMS P3 title. Already with a win at Silverstone under their belt, the Yorkshire-based team will be keen to get on the pace of the ORECAs as soon as possible. Proven winner Felipe Alberquerque has certainly not disappointed with his speed, and Will Owen brings an extra dimension to the team. Silver driver Hugo de Sadeleer completes this very promising line-up, but will the JSP2-17 be able to compete with the ORECAs on even terms?
Cetilar Villorba Corse (#47)
This Italy-based team is another making the step up from ELMS P3, this time with the new Dallara chassis. Andrea Bellichi moves across from Rebellion, while team-mates Sernagiotto and Lacorte stay with the team from P3. The lack of experience may tell over a race distance however, and the Dallara certainly isn’t as good as the ORECA in low-downforce setting.
Racing Team Nederland (#29)
This bright yellow machine certainly isn’t one to be overlooked! Perennial favourite Jan Lammers will ensure there are plenty of orange-clad Dutch fans in the crowd, even if they aren’t contenders. Joining the 1988 winner are popular Brazilian Rubens Barrichello and Jumbo supermarkets chief Frits van Eerd. Will be a crowd favourite if nothing else…
Panis-Barthéz Competition (#23)
This French team fronted by non-driving Olivier Panis and ex-Manchester United and France goalkeeper Fabien Barthéz returns for a second year in P2, the all-French driver line up being completed by Timothé Buret and Nathaniel Berthon. One of only three teams to choose Michelin over Dunlop rubber, will this be a much-needed joker element? It needs to do something different as they were only 17th in P2 at the test.
SMP Racing (#27)
Having been forced to ditch their own BR01 chassis just as it was becoming competitive, the Russian team chose to skip the first two ELMS rounds with their Dallara and will begin their 2017 campaign at Le Mans instead. Mikhail Aleshin comes over from his IndyCar season in the USA, while Sergei Sirotkin has a proven record in GP2. Viktor Shaytar has raced here in GT last year. Inter-team communication will be no problem as all three are Russians. The only disadvantage here might be the lack of race experience with the new car.
Tockwith Motorsports (#34)
Another Yorkshire-based team stepping up from P3, drivers Nigel Moore & Phil Hanson are joined by ex-F1 pilot and Channel 4 pundit Karun Chandhok. A last-minute deal with Gulf Oils sees the Tockwith red replaced by the familiar orange-and-blue colours. As well as racing in the ELMS, they cleverly entered the Spa WEC in order to get some extra experience with the Ligier JSP-17, only a late-race gearbox problem preventing a finish in Belgium. The team is too new to make an impact this year, but this is a multi-year project so this will be very much a learning experience.
Graff Racing (#39)
Finishing 20th in the test, the sister car to the #40 suffered from problems with the alternator which restricted their track time. Aussie James Winslow joins regular ELMS paring Enzo Guibbert and Eric Trouillet. Graff lack nothing in experience but they really need to get on top of the mechanical problems in order to make a significant impact in the race itself.
IDEC Sport Racing (#17)
22nd in P2 and the second-fastest Michelin runner, this little family team from France is unusual in that two drivers are father-and-son combo Patrice and Paul Lafargue. David Zollinger is the third driver, all three are fairly good, but good enough when faced with a gold or platinum rated driver? A trouble-free run will be their first goal come Sunday.
Algarve Pro Racing (#45)
This popular team is one of contrasts. Not satisfied in having the youngest ever starter at Le Mans in Matt McMurray, they have gone out and recruited the oldest driver too, South African Mark Patterson. They have also gained sponsorship from SO24 who briefly ran a Ligier in ELMS last year, Vincent Capillaire also coming on board. They will be targeting a finish too, but given the pace of McMurray and the experience of Patterson, who knows how high up they can finish?
Keating Motorsports (#43)
Ben Keating brings his team over from IMSA for this one race, and providing much-needed variety with the only Riley in the field. Being a solo chassis team does have its disadvantages in terms of data sharing, but these guys are real triers so won’t let the lack of testing stop them. Dutchman Jeroen Bleekemolen is amazingly quick and IMSA championship leader Ricky Taylor will only enhance the team. Crucial here is to make a good impression on potential customers for the car. Unusually they have chosen Michelin over Dunlop tyres.
ARC Bratislava (#49)
This is an intriguing team who have gained their entry via the Asian Le Mans series. The bright yellow Ligier will be very recognisable too, but seems likely to be at the tail end of the P2 field. The lack of experience of Konopka, Calko and de Breukers and the fact the car isn’t an ORECA might tell over 24 hours.
Eurasia Motorsport (#33)
Mark Goddard has rented out his car to the Nicolet père et fils, their flat-capped friend Erik Maris joining the squad for this race. This all-gentleman line up will not be able to compete against the gold and platinum-rated drivers for class honours, but will just be out to enjoy themselves and keep out of trouble.